Table of Contents
|Inhuman Conditions (2020)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.89]
|Tommy Maranges and Cory O'Brien
Inhuman Conditions is an unfortunate game. It’s a brave idea that just doesn’t, at least in my experience, work often enough to be worth playing. It got one and a half stars in our review. But there’s ambition there – a two player social deduction experience was always going to be a hard nut to crack. The aesthetic is wonderful (although, expect it to come up here) and there’s something joyful about stamping ‘You’re a robot’ onto a paper form. It’s very, very satisfying in a way that may have awakened something in me. Somewhere in the back of my mind is a clearly secret fetish about becoming some kind of ASMR notary sex worker.
Anyway, you’re not here for inked stamp based erotica. Probably. What you’re here for is our other kind of erotica – stripping a game naked and pointing out its many flaws. So let’s get started.
Inhuman Conditions is not so much inaccessible here as it is infuriating. There aren’t any problems as such – colour is never used as the sole channel of information – but the colour palette really bothered me. It’s used primarily to separate out the different conversational modules and there is so little variation between some of them that I couldn’t make out the differences on occasion.
There are only eleven modules – it’s not inconceivable that there are eleven colours that can be clearly distinguished. And yet we have light blue, cyan, and dark blue along with ‘dark green’ and ‘light green’ and various other annoying combinations. It’s only ever an issue in certain circumstances (such as tidying up the game after a session where certain combinations are used) but it merits discussion.
That said, the decks all include icons and identifying letter codes.
The stamps are fine, and they have prominent iconography on them. Colour isn’t used elsewhere in the game.
We’ll strongly recommend Inhuman Conditions in this category, but it’s grudging.
This is a far more genuinely problematic category. Every part of the game is likely to be an issue here, although in varying levels of severity. Let’s begin with the less impactful stuff.
First of all, the game is heavily card based, and those cards are almost entirely visual. Roles and penalties are dealt out at the start of an interview, and while they aren’t complicated or dense there’s a problem with a suspect inquiring what they are. Not so much the role, which is there mostly for flavour, but the penalty. If a suspect asks ‘Uh, what was the penalty again’ during an interview what they have actually said is ‘Hello, I am a robot’. Human players never need to know the penalty except during the initial calibration exercises.
But that’s a smaller issue compared to the inducer cards, which have different kinds of accessibility problem depending on whether they are human or robot.
The human card for example has a ‘maze’ style graphic which requires players to follow letter ordering and answer questions on it. ‘Which letter comes two after B’? is an example of that. Robot players instead get an answer key, but the key is in a completely different place and the letters are tiny. This card is completely hidden information – only the suspect should see it. As a result, the game is inaccessible to anyone with even moderate visual impairment because the simple act of close inspection will reveal the state of a suspect. If they direct attention to the centre of their card, they’re a human. If they direct it to the top, they’re a robot. Players could pantomime this but they still need to know the information so there’s only so far that can go. If you as an investigator ask ‘Which letter is three after A’ then play-acting will need to be convincing that you’re looking at the human maze when the information is actually above it. There’s no reason for a human to look where the robot would – no gameplay information requires scrutiny in that portion of the card.
You could ignore this part of the game, but it does mean that one of the few unshakeable points of data an investigator can use is lost.
When playing a patient robot, the instruction you are given is clearly shown in the centre of the card, and the font is of a reasonable size. This is an area where the need to pantomime inducer circuits might be useful because it’s where the maze would be on a human card.
For an investigator, the problems come in with the inducer answer key (in very small letters that can be somewhat lost in the icon on the card) and in the conversation cards themselves since they come in ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ flavours and they need to be interrelated.
That said, you can play the game perfectly well without using them (other than the answer key) and instead adopting a general questioning style informed by but not dictated by the prompts. Indeed, that’s guidance given to investigators in the rules. The thing is – if you’re not using the cards then you’re back to the idea that Inhuman Conditions is a conversation masquerading as a game.
The form is the final problematic component since it is very small and filling it out legibly is likely to be an issue.
So, those are the problems. There are though solutions to (almost) all of those. The issue is that every solution you have removes another of the layers of gameplay layered on top of the main bulk of the experience. At its core it is a structured interview which is an accessible proposition. All the gameplay systems serve to abstract away from that. At a certain point you need to ask yourself if you need the game at all.
We don’t recommend Inhuman Conditions in this category.
Conversational games like this are often a problem when it comes to cognitive faculties. They tend to be deceptively simple in their mechanisms because the real cognitive workload is what you say rather than what you can say and when. Inhuman Conditions does some interesting things with this.
Literacy is an issue throughout the game. Both players need to be able to read and interpret instructions, and sometimes there will be a degree of ambiguity there. What I love though is that part of the preliminary section of the interview is players agreeing on parameters for what a penalty means. If the penalty is ‘take your hands off the table’ and you put them on your lap I might say ‘No, I want you to raise them but keep your arms where they are’. Or I might say ‘After five seconds you need to put them back’. It means that ambiguity, which is prevalent, is dealt with right at the start.
Much as with games such as Funemployed or Once Upon a Time, Inhuman Conditions put a lot of attention on each of the players. A common criticism I have had is it means if you don’t have anything to say it can be very uncomfortable. For the investigator in Inhuman Conditions that’s very true – they direct the speed and tone and direction of the conversation. The provision of communication prompts though helps reduce the cognitive overload of thinking of something to say or ask.
The penalty is always clearly visible in front of the players, and the robot player (if there is one) will have all of the gameplay information they need easily available – no need to rely on memory there. A degree of spatial intelligence is needed though to interpret mazes for human player.
The largest problem here comes for those with memory impairments, because within the interview it’s important (to avoid suspicion) that you are coherent and consistent with your answers. Human and robot players need to ensure that they don’t trigger penalties when they shouldn’t. Robot players also need to remember their programming and how that relates to what they’ve just said so as to correctly trigger penalties. But more than this, the interview answers should have intellectual consistency.
I don’t believe it’s ever formally stated within the game systems, but Inhuman Conditions seems built upon a belief in the hypothesis that lies are harder to remember than the truth. Prompts will often circle back to previous things that had been mentioned, looking to see how new queries integrate into an existing narrative. From the review I talked about answering questions such as ‘What would you change about being Dean in a college of clowns’, and later on the investigator might ask ‘How does your mother feel about the thing you’d change?’.
The idea seems to be ‘If you’re answering these honestly as a human you’ll find it easier to to deal with follow ups’, but I’m not sure it’s true in this context. It does though create a memory burden with unpredictable consequence. The extent to which inconsistency convinces someone you are a robot is decoupled from the mechanics and instead bound up in human psychology.
We’ll tentatively recommend Inhuman Conditions in our fluid intelligence category, but we can’t recommend it for those with memory impairments.
The only real problem here is likely to be stamping forms and completing the bureaucracy. I say it’s a problem because that’s part of the whole aesthetic of the experience and it’s a non-trivial loss if you can’t stamp a form ‘ROBOT’ even if you can substitute it with a verbal judgement.
The only other physical consideration is that the inducer cards for the suspect need to be slotted into a block and angled so they cannot be seen by the investigator. In essence the game comes with its own robust card holder.
The physical requirements are light, but they can’t be sacrificed without consequence. We’ll still recommend Inhuman Conditions in this category.
This is an interesting social deduction game in that it doesn’t require bluffing so much as correctly following a set of instructions. For those without an inbuilt fluency in human behaviour, it’s likely the most accessible of this family of games we’ve ever looked at. Truthfully, it might be one of the reasons why I find the gameplay so unedifying – I’m very good at fitting this kind of instruction into how I talk because it’s basically how I navigate my daily life. Most of my social routines work like computer algorithms. When someone I don’t know particularly well says something to me, my mental response is something like ‘Ah, run function commiserate_person(STATE_HEARTFELT)’. That social API has been built up over a lifetime of saying and doing the wrong thing at the wrong time and observing the results. A lot of how Inhuman Conditions works just requires me to run those brain subroutines with different parameters.
I’ve never been diagnosed with autism, but…
Anyway, my point from this is that the way the game is designed nullifies a lot of the criticism I’d normally have in this section of a teardown. It gives conversational prompts that lower the barrier to play, and you never need to directly deceive anyone – the deception comes as a natural result of obeying a directive. Even the jobs, which might require a bit of role-playing, are optional. There’s a mode in the game called ‘Sealed file’ where you don’t even have one.
One potential problem area though comes in the final judgement. Few people will complain about being marked ‘human’ when they were playing a robot, but there’s an edge to the counterpoint. If I’m being a human and someone marks me ‘robot’ then it’s easily possible to take that personally. Remember, nothing in the game forces abnormal behaviour if a suspect is human and both players in that scenario have the same goal in mind – ‘mark this person as a human’. If you fail to convince someone you’re a normal person, it’s down to how poorly you played that role. ‘Robotic’ is often a descriptor applied to people with autism, and it’s one with negative connotations as a result.
Nonetheless, we’re going to recommend Inhuman Conditions in this category.
There’s no assumption of gender in the rules or in the game, using instead the neutral terms ‘suspect’ and ‘investigator’. There’s no art in the game that is gendered either, with vaguely human bonces used instead on the cards.
I got the game via Kickstarter (that’s how much I liked the idea), and I don’t think it’s even now generally available except through the manufacturer’s website. It is though available under a Creative Commons licence, so even if you can’t get hold of the physical version with all its various components you can make your own. That’s about as economically accessible as could be hoped for. They even adapted the rules for play online, during plague times. I believe the RRP is in the region of £40 if you can find it for sale.
We strongly recommend Inhuman Conditions in this category.
This is a game of conversation, but it’s one with features that make it somewhat suitable for those impacted by issues in this category. Since it’s two player only, you don’t need to worry about trying to make yourself heard over a half dozen other people. You don’t need to worry about people taking advantage of conversational lapses to discredit your argument. You don’t need to worry about people ganging up on you or claiming you said something you didn’t with the assistance of confederates. All the usual tools someone would have for dealing with a conversation would be appropriate here. The game comes with a five minute time limit, but really that can be set to whatever is comfortable. As such, as far as communication impairments go I’d say that this is roughly as accessible as a normal conversation would be.
Literacy may be a slight issue, but the mechanisms of the game ensure that at least some of that is resolved right at the start of the interview. Only the robot instructions may be an difficulty when dealing with players that don’t speak the language of the game.
Surprisingly for a game like this, I’m going to recommend it in this category with the provisos above.
The only small intersectional issue I might point out is that a fluid intelligence impairment that intersects with an emotional inaccessibility may exacerbate issues that I outlined in those sections. Particularly being labelled as a robot when you’re a human. Other than that, I don’t see an intersectional issue that would change the individual or compound grades.
Inhuman Conditions plays very quickly – five minutes per conversation and about the same at the start and end of the session for setup and teardown. It takes up relatively little table room, so it’s ideal for playing in situations of limited time and space (such as a hospital visit). It’s not possible for a player to drop out, obviously, but it’s a game that can be terminated at any time – even within the rules – by the investigator stamping someone’s form as a robot. All that it takes to bow out of the game in other words is for the suspect to say ‘Beep boop’.
Inhuman Conditions is an interesting game for a teardown because a lot of its features, aimed I assume at improving the feel of immersion, also create systems of accessibility. I (very) often say throughout this blog that accessibility is good for everyone, and this is the kind of game that shows that off very well at least in the categories where it is well graded.
It’s a shame then that I can’t really recommend it as a game because it has a number of design lessons that other title could adapt. Admittedly, it also has a number of design blunders that should be avoided, but that’s the nature of this rough beast I sent slouching towards Bethlehem.
We gave Inhuman Conditions one and a half stars in our review. It’s a design, and an aesthetic, that I love but what looks great on paper doesn’t always translate into real life with the expected fidelity. It is though one of the most accessible deduction games we’ve looked at on the site, at least as far as its emotional and communication aspects are concerned.
A Disclaimer About Teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.